26 January 2023

The Brawl To Win It All: Round I of III

Friday's FA Cup fourth round tie sees us travel to the almighty Etihad, that perilous pitch, the stadium where hope goes to die, that...well, you get the idea. We haven;'t won at the Etihad since 18 January 2015, but who's counting? Speaking of counting, wew haven't scored in our last three trips, and we've been outscored by a total of 9-0, including that 5-0 shellacking back in August 2021. I have a theory about that match; we'll return to that half-baked hypothesis in a bit. For one, we're quite a lot better at this footballing than we were on that day. Due the postponement of our September match, we haven't faced Man City in over a year. We didn't do half-bad, losing 1-2.

In that match, we actually took a lead and looked to have something loosely resembling control until Stuart Atwell awarded a penalty for Xhaka pulling on Silva's jersey as he dove (wouldn't the jsrsey pull help Silva stay up?) and then issuing two quick yellow cards against Gabriel, one for scuffing the penalty spot before Mahrez could step up and another fo a foul on Jesus. The first was a technicality; the second one was harsh for a match of this stature. Dozens of similar fouls go uncalled not to mention unbooked.  It was, to put it mildly, one of the more-controversial matches we've been involved in. Despite being a man down for a solid hour, we battled fiercely and looked likely to keep a point against the best squad money could buy...until Rodri poked home in the 93rd minute to complete an almost entirely undeserved smash-and-grab.

That brings me back to that infamous 5-0 demolition. We never looked likely to be competitive here, having already lost to newly-promoted Brentford and then pre-midtable Chelsea. Indeed, we went behind early, 2-0 inside of 13 minutes. By the time Xhaka get sent off, the outcome was established. That brings me back to my half-baked hypothesis. Here it is: despite going a man down, despite already trailing, it felt like Arteta instructed his charges to do their best to continue with the original plan. Damn the torpedoes. For as much as was possible while keeping just 19% possession, we didn't really seem to park the bus. Rather, we continued to look to get up the pitch to create chances. While it backfired spectacularly regarding the scoreline, it sent a message to our players. We're not going to quit. We're going to fight.

I'm not saying I'm right. I will say that the difference in how our squad responds to conceding has changed dramatically. We used to see our players hang their heads or gaze skyward, shell-shocked either way, as the capitulation cascaded into calamity. Fast-forward to this season, and our lads seem to take getting scored on as a personal affront to which the only response is to score right back. We've spent a grand total of 90 minutes trailing our opponents all season. For as good as we've been, we seem to get better after conceding (and that may be a good thing against Man City, if I'm being honest). 

"The Brawl to Win It All" might be a bit hyperbolic, given that this is a fourth round tie and the winner still has to win four more matches, but these two clubs are currently the prohibitive favourites to win this competition as well as the Prem. It's also a bit of a dry run for the two Prem matches in which the two of us will grapple with potentially cataclysmic consequences. Still, whoever does win might just gain a psychological advantage going into the other two rounds, as it were. It's anyone's guess how Guardiola will approach this. He's only one the FA Cup once, suggesting he doesn't rate it all that highly. Then again, he's won the League Cup four times, so wno knows? We do know of course that Arsenal have dumped Man City out of this competition both times the two have met. 

Let/s hope then that past is prologue.

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